Sunday, March 25, 2007

The More Things Change . . .

“The dances will continue to dance, and the horses will continue to run.” So said Deng Xiaoping to reassure Hong Kongers about life after the return to China in 1997, ten years ago this July 1. He might have added: And the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens will go on and on.

Rugby played with seven-man teams traces its origins as far back as the late 19th century, but it really got its boost as a global sport in Hong Kong. The annual Rugby Sevens was cooked up in that bastion of British colonialism, the Hong Kong Club, in 1975 when the prospect of the British Union flag being hauled down was no more than a far distant worry.

Local rugby enthusiasts wanted to host a major tournament in Hong Kong, but if the teams were composed of the regulation 15 players with 80-minute matches, the event would be as long as the two week-long football World Cup, or the World Cricket tournament now being played.

The solution: Play the tournament using seven players on a team with matches lasting little more than fifteen minutes each. A round-robin tournament of two dozen teams could thus be packed into one tight, exciting weekend.

But the Rugby Sevens is more than just a sporting event. It is the Hong Kong expat social event of the year, a kind of spring bacchanalia. Much of the color and not a little of the action takes place not on the field but in the stands as the otherwise buttoned-down stockbrokers and currency traders let their hair down and their inhibitions loose.

The fact that a dozen national teams compete and the games are short (though often high-scoring), presents an ever changing panorama of nationalism to bring out the loyalties of Hong Kong’s motley international community.

Over the years the Sevens has spawned its own traditions and tribal rituals. For some reason lost in history it is obligatory to boo the Australian team as it takes the field. The stands are full of people with the British Union flags painted on their faces or wearing hats that are supposed to make them look like kiwi birds. And no Sevens would be complete without at least one streaker.

Ten years ago, when the handover to China was a nervous 100 days in the future, there was considerable anxiety whether the Sevens would even survive. Two high profile commercial sponsors, Cathay Pacific Airways and the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corp. both pillars of the British establishment for decades, announced that they would end their generous support for the games in 1998.

The companies threw out a lot of smoke about reordering their advertising priorities, and such. But it was obvious they were nervous about being so closely identified with such an expatriate, one might even say colonial institution.

Fast forward to 2007 and Cathay Pacific is proudly back as a sponsor (the HSBC slot has been taken by Credit Suisse). The Rugby Sevens has easily weathered the change of sovereignty and is firmly ensconced in Hong Kong’s social psyche (the expat side of it anyway; the Chinese majority is mainly indifferent) ten years after the British flag was hauled down forever.

Another thing that has not changed is the Antipodean dominance of the games. Teams from Asia, such as Malaysia, South Korea and even Hong Kong itself, compete, but none has ever won a tournament.

In the 30-odd years since the games began in 1976 Fiji has triumphed 11 times, New Zealand eight, Australia five times. But of late the perfidious Brits have returned to reclaim a small corner of their ancient patrimony, having won the last four tournaments.

Former British prime minister John Major (the man who appointed the much reviled [by Beijing] last governor, Chris Patten). was present in 2006 to watch proudly as England scored a try (why they call it a “try” rather than a “success” is a mystery) in the dying seconds of the final game to beat Fiji 26-24.

So the big question for this year’s Rugby Sevens, which will be played this weekend (Mar 30-Apr 1) is whether England will extend its winning streak. That is to be decided on the field, but there are other things that one can make book on.

The Fijian team will undoubtedly perform its traditional cibi war dance to psyche out the opposition. The Australian team will be booed. At least one streaker will cross the playing pitch. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Todd Crowell is the author of Farewell, My Colony: The Last Years of British Hong Kong


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